Boundaries for Beginners

Boundaries. A popular therapy & self-care buzz word that’s thrown around all the time. Often boundaries are presented with the metaphor of a fence separating your yards from your neighbors. You are responsible to water your own garden & take care of what’s in your yard, regardless of what’s going on in your neighbors’ side. That’s lovely, but what does that mean?

We could spend many blogs talking about boundaries, but for the sake of simplicity, at their core, boundaries are a combination of a request + a commitment to yourself for the aim of taking care of yourself. Let’s break that down:

Request: Asking someone to do something or refrain from doing something. Making a clear request about your expectations sets you up for success. Other people can’t read your mind, nor is it fair to punish others for request we have not communicated. Remember, the other person has the right to say yes, no, or let’s negotiate to the request you present.

Examples: “Please don’t yell at me” or “Please be here by 3pm”.

Commitment to yourself: This is what you will do to take care of yourself if the other person is not willing or able to agree to your request. This piece of the puzzle is essential, and is the most neglected part of setting & maintaining boundaries. When clients say “They don’t respect my boundaries!” or “My boundaries aren’t working!” it’s usually because they have not followed through on their responsibility to themselves. The only person you can control is yourself.

Examples: “If you speak to me that way, I will leave the conversation until we can speak calmly to each other.” or “I’ll be leaving at 3pm, so if you aren’t here on time, you’ll need to find another ride.”

Boundaries exist for your self-care & enable you to live within your values. They are not intended to change another person’s behaviors. At the end of the day, a boundary may have an impact on how another person treats you, but the end goal of successful boundaries is to take care of yourself. Successful boundaries will help you look in the mirror and feel good about how you behaved, whether the other person “respected your boundary” or not.

On the boundary struggle bus? You are not alone. Boundaries are hard work and take lots of practice. Reach out if you’d like some support taking the next step toward a healthy, boundaried life.

Escaping the Drama Triangle

Last week’s blog focused on the frustrating dynamic of Karpman’s Drama Triangle - the dance between the victim, persecutor, and rescuer. It’s a dance we may be all too familiar with and one that can happen subtly. But once we recognize it, how do we step out of it?

Like I mentioned previously, each of the three roles needs someone to fulfill one of the other roles in order for the dance to continue. So a huge part of stepping out of the drama is to become aware of which roles you play. These roles are often learned early on in our families but can become fluid in relationships. For example, if you notice you have a tendency to rescue, intentionally work toward expanding awareness of how, when, and where you tend to rescue others.

Once you have cultivated some awareness of your role, the next step is to stick to your side of the fence. Sticking to your side of the fence means using I-statements like “I’m feeling ____” or “I’m noticing ____.” At the core, all of the roles focus on the other person rather than yourself, essentially blame shifting and giving power away in three unique manifestations. By choosing to stick to your feelings, experiences & responsibilities only, you are practicing being accountable for your feelings and actions and allowing others to do the same.

Finally, expect the drama to continue for a little while. When you step out of the drama, the other person will likely still play their role for a bit, but abstaining from your role cuts off the fuel to the fire. Relationships are like baby mobiles, changing up one role disrupts the whole system, and often the system is eager to get back to the familiar status quo. It will take practice over time to notice the role, learn to step out of it, and allow your relationships to adjust accordingly. Like practicing any new skill, this often doesn’t happen seamlessly at first. Over time, I hope you will find more peace and clarity in yourself.

The Drama Triangle

Ever reflect back on an argument with a loved one and wonder what the heck you were actually arguing about? Somewhere the conversation must have derailed. In any conversation there are two important elements at play -- the actual content of the conversation and the emotional subtext below the content of the conversation. When arguments derail, it’s often because we are getting stuck in the content without paying attention to the emotional process underneath. This leads to feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and feeling unresolved.

The Drama Triangle is a helpful way to recognize when your conversation has jumped on the crazy train. The Drama Triangle (or Karpman Triangle) was developed by Stephen Karpman as a way to understand the social dynamics and roles played out in dysfunction. He describes the following 3 roles:

The Victim is characterized by learned helplessness (“woe is me!”), feeling ashamed & powerless, difficulty making decisions, and negative view of self. Victim behaviors are often intended to prompt the other person to either affirm their helplessness or rescue them, reinforcing the victim’s neediness.

The Persecutor takes an aggressive, prosecutorial, blaming approach. This role is characterized by a superior “I’m better than you” attitude that belittles and criticizes the other person.

The Rescuer is just as it sounds, the role of taking power over another person by rescuing them, being in charge, and being morally or emotionally superior to others. This is a classic fixer or helper role that can enable helpless behavior of the victim to continue and can aid the rescuer in avoiding their own issues by focusing on helping others.

Each of these three roles needs someone to fulfill another aspect of the drama triangle to continue - i.e. the rescuer needs a victim, the victim needs a persecutor or rescuer, and the persecutor needs a victim. It’s not uncommon to shift roles within the span of a conflict, for example the rescuer being tired of fixing and becoming the persecutor, or the victim and persecutor flip flopping roles. And the drama continues.

In dysfunctional conflict we tend to favor one role over the others. What role do you resonate with? In a future blog we’ll talk about how to step out of the drama triangle and into healthy interactions.

Co-Addiction vs. Trauma Informed Treatment for Betrayed Partners

In the early days of sex addiction treatment, clinicians took a copy + paste approach from successful substance abuse treatment protocols and applied it to sex addiction treatment. While some of this was (and remains) helpful for treating addiction, it unfortunately misunderstood and ultimately mistreated the partners in the process. This copy + paste approach left treatment addict-centric while looking to the partner and family for support for treatment rather than understanding the family needs their own support too. It also carried the co-addict or codependent label over to the betrayed partner.

The co-dependent model can make the partner feel culpable or responsible for the addiction behaviors by somehow enabling their acting out or for the very reason of choosing an addict as a mate. This model requires the partner to also be in lifelong recovery as they unpack and release their own addictive tendencies. This left many partners feeling blamed for their spouse’s addiction and further traumatized when seeking treatment.

As new research emerged over the years, however, the field is acknowledging how poorly the partners of addicts have been treated along the way. It has become clear that the most helpful approach to supporting betrayed partners is a trauma informed lens. Rather than label with codependency or other mental health diagnoses, the trauma informed model assumes first and foremost that the partner’s responses (emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, relationally) fit those consistent with traumatic stress. Often the betrayed partner has done the best they can to adapt to an addictive system, one that they were likely unaware of until discovery of the sexually compulsive behaviors. The discovery of the behaviors plus the secrecy and double life required to keep it hidden is doubly traumatizing.

While some betrayed partners may also identify with some codependent qualities, certainly not all will fit this list. The vast majority, however, will display symptoms of traumatic response as a result of the betrayal. The trauma model empowers the partner, normalizes their responses, and holds hope that healing and restoration are possible. If you find yourself looking for healing after discovering your spouse or partner’s betrayal, I encourage you to find trauma informed support through counseling, coaching, or support groups that will journey with you this process.

The 3 Essential Parts of Forgiveness

Recently my church community has been focusing on forgiveness - what does it mean that we are forgiven and what does it look like to be a forgiving people? It’s a challenging process, and one that’s been rattling around in my head quite a bit recently. Forgiveness has often been something I've had to work at, perhaps you can relate. Sometimes we feel stuck, and forgiveness seems an impossible task. Other times we can be too quick to offer forgiveness, dismissing the pain the wound has caused. Either way, how in the world are we to forgive?

I am a bit of a Brene Brown groupie (if you haven’t seen her TED talks or read her books, make that top of your to-do list). Brene outlines 3 crucial steps to forgiveness:

1. Acknowledge the pain.
The very fact that forgiveness is necessary depends on there being some breach of relationship, pain, wounding, disappointment, or betrayal. If we are to truly forgive others, we first must acknowledge that we were wronged and feel the pain that was caused. (The same is true in offering apologies, another topic for another day.)

2. Let die.
Of an already difficult process, this is arguably the most difficult step. Letting die means grieving the loss of the relationship as it was. Sometimes letting die means choosing to bury our loss, pain, anger, power, or being right. According to Brown, forgiveness always involved grief and in forgiveness we will "die a thousand deaths". This part of the forgiveness process takes great sacrifice, and it may be a step we need to return to and choose again and again, putting to death the parts of us that want to continue to punish, withhold, and use our pain as a shield or weapon to oppose the other. This grief and burial of something old may make space new life to be born. Other times it may be a loss without the continuation of the relationship.

3. See new life.
Burying and grieving what used to be can create fertile soil for new life to be born. The pain that required forgiveness in many ways means that the relationship may never be the same, it is truly something new. Sometimes embracing this new life can bring hope, joy, and beauty from brokenness. This may be a reconciled relationship, or it may be new life in a different way. I loved the reminder in my church that recognizing the new life is a task only for the forgiver. When others step in to point out new life may (i.e. “I know it was painful, but look at all the good that came from it!”), it may feel minimizing or patronizing. But when the forgiver can genuinely see new life sprouting after acknowledging their pain and grieving their loss, the new life may even be sweeter than the old.

When we walk through the difficulty of extending forgiveness to others, it can truly free us from being tethered to our pain and anger, and it can revolutionize the way we receive forgiveness as a sacrificial gift from others.

Disclosure After Infidelity

There is often a mixed reaction when we talk about a full disclosure - some couples want to race into it, others are scared to face it. Sometimes one party wants it, and the other doesn't. Research shows, however, that 94% of couples that go through the full disclosure process find it to be healing, helpful, and are glad they did it.

Full disclosure is essentially the acting out partner giving a complete account to their spouse/partner of all sexual behaviors from the inception of the relationship and forward. Understandably, this is a very challenging day for both partners. Often the disclosing partner fears the information will hurt their partner, and the partner fears they may regret hearing information that they cannot unhear. Despite these potential risks, there are many benefits.

Often partners of sex addicts will experience staggered disclosure, bits and pieces of information gathered over time, either from an addict self-disclosing or being caught. Usually the information is spoken as if it's the full truth, so when more information comes along, it can be all the more traumatizing. This leaves the partners feeling uncertain if there is more information hidden and fearful of trusting again. Yet many partners need to know the full truth in order to move forward in healing the relationship. Therapeutic disclosure helps reduce that fear by creating a safe space to hear all of the acting out behavior in one setting. This is a painful day, yet the structure helps contain the trauma into one setting rather than being re-traumatized with each staggered disclosure. 

Though there may be some trepidation approaching disclosure day, the disclosing partner often reports feeling a sense of relief in having all of the secrets and information clearly out in the open. By bringing the secrets into the light, shame can dissipate and recovery can continue. The full disclosure is an important step that allows the couple to put secrets to rest, share the same information, and work through the pain to move forward.

I carefully walk couples through the disclosure process in three parts: Full Disclosure, Emotional Impact Letter, & Emotional Restitution Letter. In future blogs we'll talk more about what the next steps entail. 

If you think a full disclosure may be helpful in your journey, reach out today to get started!